Browsing category: Off the beaten path in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations, Things to do and see in Umbria

What Lies Below: The Orvieto Underground

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

Cities–like people–have a face they show the world and a hidden, intimate side, where the scars of time and trials are revealed to those who have the patience and sensitivity to look past the surface and discover all the fascinating complexity beneath.

In Orvieto, this metaphor comes to life in a poignantly literal way. This stately town—proud of its outstanding Cathedral, crisp Orvieto Classico wine, and general cosmopolitan vibe—dominates the surrounding undulating countryside from atop the dramatic volcanic stone outcropping it has inhabited on and off since the time of the Etruscans. But to really get a feel for Orvieto and its millenia-long history, more than wander its streets and piazze you need to head underground to visit its caves—more than 1,200 of which honeycomb the cliff below the historic center.

Almost all of these man-made underground caverns and passageways are private property and not open to the public, but the Orvieto Underground tour takes small groups to visit the two which are owned by the city. I had been hearing about this subterranean tour for years and had been curious to check it out, being especially partial to exploring the quirky side of Umbria and unearthing offbeat museums and tours like these. And Orvieto Underground didn’t disappoint.

One of the largest caverns has been used over the centuries as an olive oil mill.

During the hour-long visit, we saw the very first underground tunnelings by the Etruscans in search of water roughly seven centuries before Christ. The precisely cut rectangular wells (with incorporated hand and foot-holds for climbing in and out) and peaked cavern ceilings resembling rooftops (probably remnants of pagan temples) are testimony to the engineering skill and aesthetic sensibility of this still somewhat mysterious people.

After defeating the Etruscans, the Romans sacked the town and Velzna—as the Etruscans called their city–was abandoned until the early middle ages, when the next signs of human life appear underground, as well. As Orvieto began to rebuild at the strategic top of the cliff, its citizens once again found themselved digging out the soft rock beneath their homes in search of water, temperature-controlled storage (the caves maintain an average 12-13° C), and—most picturesquely—pigeon cotes. The walls of these square rooms are pocked by orderly, square pigeon holes and have a small window for the birds to fly in and out during the day. Thus began a tradition of roast pigeon in Orvieto, which you will still find on most menus today.

The pigeons raised in these cotes kept Orvieto fed for centuries.

In the late middle-ages, as the city began to stabilize and prosper, these underground caverns were expanded and converted to also house workshops for the local ceramic production (cooling cisterns and the remains of a kiln can still be found) and quarries to excavate the soft stone to mix as cement (which continued into the early 20th century). One of the biggest caverns was most recently used as an olive oil press, and the massive millstones and presses still on view make it easy to imagine the room crowded with pickers and workers pressing out one of Umbria’s most prized product each fall.

The final cavern of the tour was used as a WWII bomb shelter.

The final cavern of the tour brings visitors to modern Italy, as the bare room ringed with a low bench hewed from the stone was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Orvieto proper was declared an Open City, thus spared from the most destructive raids, but the valley below was crisscrossed with rail- and road-ways and often the target of both the Allies and retreating Germans. I can’t fathom what it must have been like to sit for hours in the blackness of a cave meters below the ground, hearing the muffled sounds of explosions and the quiet rattle of tiny stones dislodging from the ceiling and walls…hoping desperately that the rock would hold.

Though the digging of further tunnels under modern Orvieto has been banned for years, almost all the palazzi in the center of town still use their private, undergound caverns–in most cases as a cantina—left for them by centuries—if not millenia—of previous inhabitants. Walking through Orvieto now, I know that the facades lining the streets are just the town’s game face…the true soul of the town lies in its secret labyrinth below.

A view over the surrounding countryside from the Orvieto Underground caves.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.

The labyrinthian entry to the Orvieto Underground cave tour.


Olive Oil in Umbria: Past, Present, Future

Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Museum of Olive Oil Culture in Trevi. Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Remember when you’d just have a cup of coffee? You didn’t bother yourself with its country of origin and how many times it had been roasted. You just sloshed it boiling hot from the Mr. Coffee and sucked it down along with all the chemicals leaching out of the styrofoam cup it was in.

Remember when you’d just eat a tomato? You didn’t ask yourself about its carbon footprint or whether it was heirloom or hothouse. You just sliced it onto your iceberg lettuce, drowned the whole cabash in Thousand Island, and got on with it.

Remember when you’d just drink some wine? You didn’t hold forth on varietals and terroirs and Super-thises and thats. You just unscrewed that cap on the old Lancer’s bottle and poured with gravitas into two chunky cut-glass goblets and felt very sophisticated.

Before I start sounding like Andy Rooney, let me just be clear that I hold no particular nostalgia for those times. I am a foodie (though I lean less towards murmuring about tannins and undertones over a mellow glass of Sagrantino and more towards a loud, “Damn, that’s crazy good! Pass that bottle back over here a minute.”) and this growing culture of caring about where our food comes from and what it tastes like is just fine with me. I do, however, watch with amusement as wave after wave of ingredients that were once somewhat quotidien show up on the fickle foodie radar to get exalted, examined, and ultimately abandoned for the Next Big Thing by hungry hipsters.

Right now it’s all about olive oil, folks. Friends whom I know for a fact were dressing their salads with generic supermarket corn oil just minutes ago are suddenly armchair experts on cold-pressing and mono-cultures and phytonutrients. Olive oil tastings andgastronomic tours to the mills are all the rage, and travellers seem to be packing less wine and more olive oil in their suitcases for the trip home.

Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)

Traditional olive oil dispenser, Trevi, Umbria (Copyright Marzia Keller)


Anyone who loves Umbria as I do couldn’t be anything but thrilled at this trend;  olive cultivation and oil production is one of the most fundamental threads running through the historic and economic fabric of this region. And no better place to understand just how important this 2,000 year old culture is than the delightful hilltop town of Trevi.

Museum of Olive Oil Culture

Trevi is a charmer of a village even for wanderers who have no particular interest in olive oil…but for those who do, you’ve hit paydirt. Your first stop should be the small but excellent Museum of Olive Oil Culture in the museum complex of San Francesco (if you stop first at the tourist info office in the main Piazza Mazzini, you can pick up a map and free audio guide of the town).  An ecclectic mix of archival photographs, historic farm and mill implements, horticultural explanations–and heart-warmingly old-timey displays like scale models of the town and surrounding hillsides and a life-size diorama of an 18th century mill and kitchen, just the fact that an entire museum dedicated to the culture and history of olive oil exists (and a well-curated one, at that) is testimony to how fundamental this fruit is to the entire region.  They offer an audio-guide in English (included in the price of your ticket) which is a must to really enjoy the displays.

Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours

Olives from Umbria ready for pressing by olive oil tours

Olive Oil Mills

From here the next logical step is to visit an olive oil mill itself and taste what is often referred to as this region’s “liquid gold”. The impressively organized Olive Oil Road lists mills open to the public in each of the five subzones in Umbria; Trevi is included in the Assisi-Spoleto area and I used the listings to visit two local mills. At the first I was greeted by Central Casting’s “Italian Grandmother”, complete with thick specs, flowered housecoat, and carpet slippers…who was mortified to find a visitor on the day they were cleaning out the mill and apologized profusely that I had caught them with things in disorder. She did ask me in for tea and cookies, but I pressed on to the nearby Frantoio Gaudenzi.

As soon as I stepped into their pretty new mill and shop (they’ve been producing oil for 50 years, but recently built a new press along the Via Flaminia in the valley below Trevi), the pungent odor of freshly pressed oil hit me in a wave–setting off the Pavlov slobber common in any olive-oil enthusiast. Stefano, grandson of the founder, showed me the shining modern presses working the heaping mounds of freshly harvested olives (they are pressed within hours of picking) into the bright green, cloudy-thick new oil filling the vats. The Gaudenzis, like many mills, make a variety of olive oils: their basic oil, their higher-end regionally specific oil, an organic variety, and—my favorite—“Fifth Moon”, an oil made exclusively from olives harvested within the fifth moon of the flowering (meaning the month of October).  Dribbled over a piece of local, unsalted bread, the fruity smell and flavour of this intriguing oil made me lick my foodie chops.

Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours

Freshly pressed olive oil from Umbria by olive oil tours

I came away from my visit to Trevi with a feeling of having somehow connected the past to the present to the future. The Roman terracotta urns in the olive museum, the mills churning out oil under the bright October sky, the third generation producer passionately exploring new blends and techniques. Over two thousand years of history condensed into the thin, bright stream of oil soaking my bread and warming my heart.

There are lots of olive oil soaked events in Umbria in the fall and winter–for a complete list, check the  program at Frantoi Aperti. Also, I highly recommend the olive oil food tours offered by Dicovering Umbria!


Art in the Olive Groves: Madonna delle Lacrime

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

I brake for Renaissance portals. (Copyright Marzia Keller)

There was a family who lived down the block from me when I was growing up that had a passel of kids. I don’t recall how many, but definitely in the low double-digits. We would play together, and they were always just slightly unkempt…mismatched socks, hair needing a trim, ratty toys. The predictable signs of harried parents short on time and money. That said, I also remember how loved those kids were. Despite there being so many of them, I never got the sense that they were any less treasured than those of us with just a sibling or two who always had clean pants and extra milk money in our pockets.

This is kind of how it is with art in Italy. There’s just so damn much of it here that there aren’t the time and resources to take painstaking care of it all. That said, you do get a sense that Italy loves its treasures—despite much-discussed cases of mismanagement and graft—no less than any other country, even if it presents them with much less pomp and circumstance.

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside...

The sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime holds a surprise inside…

The lovely sanctuary of the Madonna delle Lacrime right outside of the center of Trevi is a perfect example of this. I stopped by mostly by chance, drawn to the pretty 15<sup>th</sup> century facade and elaborately carved Renaissance portal (by Giovanni di Giampietro di Venezia, I later learned) looming over the winding road which leads from the valley below Trevi up through the sprawling olive groves which surround it.

I stepped into the silent church, its lone visitor, and quickly skimmed the historical information near the door, recounting how the sanctuary had been constructed on the spot where, in 1485, an image of the Virgin (now forming the altarpiece) miraculously shed tears.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

A detail from the elaborate stonework decorating the facade.

As I circled the church to take a look at the chapels and artwork, my echoing footsteps suddenly stopped in front of a large Adoration of the Magi fresco. Wait one darn minute. Could that really be? Right here, in this empty church in the middle of an olive grove with not even a caretaker keeping a watchful eye?!?

No way! Yes way.

No way! Yes way.

Yep, it was a magnificent Perugino, painted in 1521 and unmistakeable in its fairytale colors, Umbrian landscape background, and—most movingly—breathtakingly fine portraits. I stood for a minute in silent admiration until I was startled by the door of the church banging shut behind me. A slight woman in her eighties, weighed down by a number of shopping bags and a lethal-looking black handbag quickly shuffled past me, set down her load, and kneeled in front of the Perugino.

I backed quietly away, leaving this priceless treasure to those who love it best.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin's foot. It's rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.

I love this silly picture of the Virgin’s foot. It’s rendered so haphazardly one just has to wonder if it was quitting time.


A Day at the Office: Cheesemakers of Cascia

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Just another day in the office for Francesco Rossi, sheep and goat herder and cheesemaker (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

I find it surprising—and somewhat heartening—that in this age where everyone seems to aspire to some sort of white-collar service sector desk job (those, of course, who don’t aspire to starring on a cable reality show), there are still people who make a conscious choice to get their hands (and boots) dirty.

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Follow this sign (and the bleating of hundreds of sheep) to the good cheese. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Enter Rita Rossi and her brother Francesco from tiny Colforcella outside of Cascia, who found themselves the unexpected owners of three orphan lambs about ten years back. As they couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd, a passing shepherd left them in their care along with cursory instructions as to how to raise them. Rita quickly found her passion, and involved Francesco in expanding their herd and adding goats. From their hilltop farm, they now raise about 150 sheep and half as many goats…taking them from their warm shed each morning to graze in the surrounding sloping fields of the Valnerina.

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Try making small talk around the water cooler with this guy every day. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

From books and neighbors, the Rossis taught themselves the art of cheesemaking, quickly turning out products of such fine quality that they count some of the best restaurants in Umbria among their clients.  Demand is so high for their tangy and pungent wheels that they no longer sell aged cheese, as they can’t keep them around long enough to properly age them. They offer a variety of soft, fresh goat cheese and sheep cheese ranging from two days to a month old…some of which are flavored with the saffron threads they harvest from their field of crocuses (croci?).

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Rita Rossi separates out saffron threads from her crocus field. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

My visit to the Rossi farm, accompanied by a chef friend who had sung me their praises, only underlined the singularity of these brother-and-sister team’s choice of work: theirs is no showcase estate, but a real working farm complete with lots of hounds and lots of mud. That said, the bleating sheep coming up the lane against the background of the autumn colored woods, the field of tiny violet crocuses with their bright orange stigmas, and the serene smile lighting up Rita’s face as she shyly talks about her life are undeniably bucolic.

The view from your office ain't that bad, if you don't mind a little mud on your boots.

The view from your office ain’t that bad, if you don’t mind a little mud on your boots.

Our visit ended with a quick sampling of some of their cheeses: a strong soft goat caprino, a spreadable fresh sheep, and a semi-aged (about a month) casciotta (true to her word, the aging room was virtually empty…these wheels go like hotcakes). They were straightforward and left a clean taste in your mouth, with none of the insipid flavors or chemical aftertaste that comes with so many commercial cheeses made from milk from larger farms.

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Made in the morning, by afternoon these cheeses are sold out. (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)


 Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Before slicing into a wheel of casciotta, Rita rinses the rind of brine and mold (the good kind of mold).

Like the Rossi family, these cheeses had nothing fancy about them; simple, honest, and matter-of-factly excellent. Here’s to going back to the land, and from that land making something heavenly.

To taste some of these cheeses yourself, contact Rita through their website to arrange a visit or ask where their products are sold locally. You won’t be disappointed!

A huge thanks to chef Jennifer McIlvaine of Life…Italian Style for introducing me to the Rossi farm and snapping these wonderful pictures.


Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco and Franciscan Sites in Umbria

The rock star popularity of newly-minted Pope Francis (in March of 2013) has led to a surge in interest in his namesakes’ life and an explosion in the number of visitors to Franciscan sites in Assisi–primarily the Basilica of Saint Francis–and across Umbria.

The Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Though I love the Basilica for its sheer artistic and architectural heft, there are a number of sites scattered around Umbria where Francis lived and prayed that have the quieter, more contemplative vibe that marked the saint’s approach to spirituality and nature.

Whether you are drawn to the historical or the spiritual aspects of Francis’ life, there are a number of Franciscan sites which are both fascinating and poignant monuments to this Umbrian saint’s life and work. Take a look at my two articles below for an overview of Assisi’s Basilica and a Franciscan itinerary across Umbria. Pax et bonum.

A Quick Guide to the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi


Franciscan Sites in Umbria





Umbria’s Dragons

I’ll admit it.  I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina.  The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing.  The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.

A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy

I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.”  I nearly spit out my drink.  What?!?  What dragon?

It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon.  Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals.  As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business.  No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out.  When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter.  The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing.  He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.

San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco

Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head.  While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights).  This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals.  Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted.  Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.

The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco

Some of the details of the story remain unclear.  There may or may not have been an angel involved.  The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice.  There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice.  But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice.  If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice.  The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.

Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina

I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.”  More drink spitting ensued.

I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles.  In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts).  Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon.  He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.

The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.

Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear.  More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini.  Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago.  I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.

The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.

Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths.  Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster.  Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak.  The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.

Whale bones.  Malaria.  Swamp reclamation.  Religious wars.  Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that?  I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.


Italy Roundtable: The Fall Museum Crawl

This is the fifth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some fruit rollups, and join in on the conversation.

My favorite season has always been autumn, because I am a nerd. And the favorite season of nerds the world over is fall, because it marks the end of the nerd’s least favorite season:  summer.

Summer is the season of endless, aimless frolicking, frolicking usually involving sports and bikinis, (or–most often–sports in bikinis). Summer is the season of the beach read, the blockbuster movie, the pop anthem. It is the season made for drinking the hottest drink and driving the hottest car and hanging with the hottest crowd. It is, in short, the season which celebrates everything the nerd is not very good at.

Fall—fall, my friends—is the season when order and routine return. It is the season when schools (or–for the older nerd–night courses) begin, the season of baggy sweaters and long walks in the arboretum (nerds like their nature tagged in Latin). Fall is the season of the Nobel prize for literature, the art-house film festival, the symphonic season opener. It is a season made for quiet, contemplative, indoor pursuits during which one is fully clothed and speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. It is, in short, the season during which the nerd positively shines.


And one of the nerd’s favorite activities during those rainy, Sunday afternoons in late fall is visiting museums. I love museums. Love them. I grew up in Chicago, which is a city saturated with sprawling, monumental museums. I cut my teeth at the Museum of Science and Industry, with its coal mine and walk-through heart and giant model train, and the Field Museum, with its towering dinosaur skeletons filling the main hall and life-size dusty paleolithic dioramas. (I love the Field Museum so much I actually toyed with the idea of holding my wedding reception there. Alas, nerds are poor. Geeks are the rich ones. They understand computer programming.)

Umbria, of course, can’t hold a candle to Chicago’s museums size-wise; the average Windy City museum covers more square acres than most Umbrian towns. That said, a number of bite-sized local museums have popped up in this region over the past few years that are excellently curated, accessible to English speakers, and well worth the hour or so it will take to visit their singular collections…even for you cool summer people out there.


Casa Museo di Palazzo Sorbello (Perugia)

Palazzo Sorbello

There is something about human nature that draws us to the past. We trawl antique stores, hike the Mayan ruins, pore over archives searching out familiar surnames. We are constantly peering through windows into history, hoping to find some connection between our brief years on earth and the millenia that have come before.

This is especially true about the home-cum-museum. Who doesn’t love to wander through these domestic archaeological sites and learn about the quotidian routines of their occupants, so similar—or, at times, so incredibly removed—from our own?

When I visited the recently opened (and winningly named) Palazzo Sorbello “House Museum” in Perugia, I was fully expecting to be charmed. I envisioned richly furnished rooms (it is a noble family’s Palazzo, after all) arranged in artful domestic tableaux, mannequins posed in period garb, dark corners, a slight musty odor, and lots of dust. I envisioned, in short, the typical small, private, off-the-beaten-track museum.

I was not expecting to be wowed. But I was, and completely enthralled during my two hour tour (the standard visit lasts about half an hour, but I got to talking with their marketing director, Enrico Speranza, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Sorbello family and their Palazzo and before we knew it….). If a visit to the Palazzo Sorbello is a window into the past, the view from here is one of a family with a long history–uniquely interwoven with that of Italy from the Middle Ages to the 20th century–and with an enduring passion for art and culture.

We began in the extensive library, includes a rare original Encyclopedie Française from the mid-1700s.  From there we spent the better part of the morning viewing their carefully curated selection of landscape paintings and portraits, breathtaking European and Chinese porcelain, a priceless handblown Murano chandelier, and various objects d’epoque.

Perhaps most fascinating was the collection of intricate embroidery produced at the beginning of the 20th century by the Embroidery School founded by the American wife of one of the noble family’s descendants. This enterprising Dame, Romeyne Robert, left her mark on the local economy by enrolling rural Umbrian women in the school, teaching them this disappearing craft, and giving them their first taste of economic independence.

More than a simple time-capsule, Palazzo Sorbello is a living lesson in Italy’s social and economic history and one of the most fascinating museums in Umbria.


Museo della Memoria (Assisi)

Palazzo Vallemani
Via San Francesco, 12
Phone: 075 8197021
Hours: Nov-Feb: 10:30–1:00/2:00–5:00 March, April, May/Sept, Oct: 10:00–1:00/2:30–6:00; June-Aug 10:00–1:00/1:30–7:00

Museo della Memoria

It’s easy to forget, in this religiously homogeneous land where politics, education, holidays, foods, given names, and kitschy tchotkes all seem to revolve around the Catholic church (the fact that I can use a yiddish phrase to describe things like holy water key chains and friar salt and pepper shakers gives me no end of etymological joy), that there are, indeed, other religious communities in Italy.

Jews in Italy have have had a tough time of it for the past two millenia, and the tiny remaining community of 45,000 which still live in the Bel Paese would have been even smaller had it not been for the work of a network of citizens—lay and ordained, private and official—who secretly collaborated under the direction of Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and priests Father Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci to harbor and ultimately save more than 300 Jews (most from northern Italy) and other war refugees in the early 1940s.

I, like most local residents, had heard bits and pieces of this story through word of mouth and buzz created with the publication of The Assisi Underground, a 1978 novel built around the true story of this clandestine network. That said, for years the only remaining tangible evidence was the vintage printing press, still bolted to the floor of the typographer workshop-turned-souvenir shop in Piazza Santa Chiara, which had been used by the Brizi family to secretly print false identity cards and other documents, making it possible for Jews both in Assisi and across Italy avoid deportation and imprisonment.

When the building was sold in 2009, the new owners asked the press be removed, which spurred a grassroots movement by locals to create some sort of official display rather than let the last vestige of the Underground be packed away in storage. After a few calls to action in the local paper, I hadn’t heard much else, so figured the momentum had died away and the living memory along with it.

Luckily, I was wrong. Through private and public donations, the Museo della Memoria (Memory Museum) opened in the spring of 2011, and it is startlingly excellent. The four halls are packed with excellently displayed (and translated) letters, documents, photographs, and historical artifacts (many of which revolve around the Brizi’s typography workshop), an in-depth biography of the main characters in the story (including the German Colonel Valentin Müller, Commandant of the city and Catholic, who showed humanity in an inhumane situation), and a video loop of interviews with some of the surviving activists and refugees.

Moving, compelling, and perfectly curated, this jewel of a museum merits a visit. A final note: No Assisan betrayed the Underground and no refugee passing through was captured during its activity. So, the Jews have a debt to the city. And yet…and yet. It was the letter forged by the hand of one of these refugees, fluent in German,  purportedly from Kesselring declaring Assisi an open city, which began the evacuation of German troops under Colonel Müller and quite probably saved Assisi from destruction.

So, who owes whom, really, in the end?


Museo della Canapa (Sant’Anatolia di Narco)

Phone: 0743. 613149 (if you arrive and no one is there, call this number or ask around…the office is down the street)
Hours: Mon closed, Tues-Fri: 9:00-1:00, Tues/Thurs: 3:00-6:00, Sat: 2:30-6:00, Sun: must reserve.

Museo della Canapa

If you think that just one person can’t make much of a difference in this crazy world, listen to the story of a five foot tall, red haired, tinkly-bracelet-and-flowered-poncho-clad dynamo named Glenda Giampaoli. Yep, just like that bad ass of a Good Witch Glenda, who might disarm you with her ready smile and sweet voice but don’t get between her wand and whatever she’s aiming it at.

A textile archaeologist with a soft spot for her home region, Glenda had a dream: to bring to light the rich history of hemp farming and textile production in the Valnerina. And before you start pigeonholing her in with Woody Harrelson and patchouli-scented aging hippies in Berkeley, let me just tell you that hemp was once mainstream in Italy. Extremely mainstream. So mainstream, in fact, that Italy was the second largest industrial hemp producer in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. The staid women’s fashion magazine, Grazia, put out an entire issue in 1940 entitled “The Triumph of Hemp” dedicated to the latest in hemp fabrics and styles. (The lead story begins thus: “Hemp, like a woman, must be treated roughly to render it soft and pliable.” Ahem. Yes, well. We’ve come a long way, baby.)

Then, as Glenda so succinctly puts it, Italy lost the war. History is written by the victors, who also determine the course of the future. As the Allies had huge economic stakes in the success of nylon and other synthetic fibers developed during World War II, hemp was demonized. Polyester was in, hemp was out…and with it a micro-culture and economy dependent upon its production. With an admirable amount of patience and tenacity, Glenda has been working for the past few years to re-introduce hemp farming in the Valnerina and other areas of Umbria (recent EU legislation has begun legalizing the crop) and sensitize the population to the benefits of bringing back this lost product.

Part of her campaign—the most important part, perhaps —has been the establishment of the nano-sized Hemp Museum in the fetching village of Sant’Anatolia di Narco. With a bit of negotiation, flavored with diplomacy, grovelling, determination, and (one can only imagine, in this country where just renewing your driver’s license can seem more complicated than an establishing an international commission on CO2 emissions) quite a bit of luck and goodwill, Glenda was able to retrofit a section of the village’s former city hall to hold an eclectic collection of antique textile and weaving tools and looms and examples of hemp cloth donated by local families and dating from the 1800s.

The museum’s information panels are all excellently translated, but if you’re lucky you may get a tour by Glenda herself, who flavours the visit with local lore and cultural nuance (hemp weaving, for example, was key to the economic independence of women—particularly widows and single women—at the turn of the century, as it was one of the few occupations available which could be pursued without leaving the home). The pride she has in her tiny yet huge triumph of a museum is palpable…and contagious. As I watched her punctuate her impassioned explanations with grand gesticulations while she insisted on showing us “just one more thing…this is really special!” I realized that only a tiny yet huge personality like Glenda could have waved her wand at the disheartening Italian bureaucracy and conjured up this most special museum.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Soul/Food: Hosteria 4 Piedi & 8,5 Pollici

One would think, right? One would think—what with my extensive arsenal of feminine charms, my glam slam social life here on the farm, and the household-name fame that is part and parcel of blogging—that I would be fending off dinner invitations from handsome strangers daily. It would become a chore, really. I would be rejecting them with a languid wave of my hand and an, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly take on one more engagement, darling. Honestly. I have a limit of four nights out a week.” I would be leaving a veritable trail of disappointment and heartbreak in my wake.

Ahem. Yes, well. I know this may come as a surprise to you (It certainly did to me), and I’m going to try to break it to you gently. That’s not exactly what goes on around here. Apparently the life of a working mother of two who writes an incredibly niche (that’s French for obscure) blog on the slow travel charms of one of the smallest regions in Italy is not exactly the most sought after arm candy on the social diaspora.

Which is why, when I received an email this summer from a fellow expat of the XY chromosome persuasion complementing me on my blog and inviting me out to lunch (I believe his exact words were something disarmingly elegant like, “I think you would enjoy one of my favorite restaurants in Umbria and I would be delighted to take you as my guest”), I literally glanced over my shoulder to check and make sure he was actually writing to me and not someone infinitely more attractive and interesting who might be standing behind me. But he was, indeed, addressing me and we settled on a date a few weeks hence (just because I don’t have a very refined social life doesn’t mean that I’m not, sadly, insanely busy).

I quickly came to the conclusion that the only explanation for this anomaly had to be that my new expat friend was some sort of psychopath (this is how the mind of a South side Chicagoan works). To fend off any possible attacks, I did what any responsible adult would do: I brought my nine year old son along. Apparently Mr. X had the same thought, as he informed me he was bringing along his niece. And so, our motley foursome was formed.

If I wasn’t disappointed about the woeful state of my social life before this lunch, I certainly was afterwards, as it turned out to be one of the highpoints of my summer. Mr. X is a delightful, erudite retiree who has lived in Umbria with his wife for the past few years and devotes much time and energy sussing out wonderful unknown eateries. His adult niece, visiting from Brooklyn, was a fun and funky designer who was great with my son.  The conversation was easy and engaging, and before we knew it we had been at the table chatting for three hours (and my son was officially late for his rugby practice).

But the best part of my surprise invitation was, by far, the pure find of a restaurant Mr. X had chosen. If there’s one thing I pride myself on–other than the fact that I can move my ears and I defiantly refuse to see the movie Titanic–it’s that I pretty much know Umbria, including her notable restaurants. I may not have actually been to them all (though that is certainly one of my short term goals, which conflicts with my other short term goal of weight loss), but it’s relatively rare that someone can pull a place completely out of the hat and awe me.

I believe that we put a little bit of our souls into our cooking. I mean, not in that new agey brick-heavy metaphoric Like Water for Chocolate way, but in a more down-home pragmatic human nature way. Any creative act—painting or singing or writing or love making—inevitably reflects what’s going on in our heads and hearts. That’s just how we’re wired and I challenge anyone to sit down and paint a bright field of sunflowers or bake a sunny lemon tart the day after a death or a break-up or a foreclosure. This soul/food connection is usually more direct in our own kitchens, simply because the dishes aren’t diluted with the touch of too many hands. But sometimes—sometimes—you come upon a one-man-show restaurant where alongside your pasta you find plated a little piece of your cook’s heart. Welcome to Laura’s Hosteria.

Hosteria 4 Piedi & 8,5 Pollici
Piazza del Mercato, 10
Bastardo (Giano dell’Umbria)
Tel: 0742 99949


Why yes, I *do* know how to upload maps now. Expect lots of showing off in future blog posts.

I have to be honest and admit that I initially had my misgivings. The Hosteria is located in Bastardo (a wholely charmless village whose only claim to anything nearing passing interest is its name) in a secondary piazza ringed with bleak cement apartment blocks and a big box supermarket. We parked in a depressing commercial lot with its straggly grass and recycling dumpsters and my unease was lessened slightly as Mr. X pointed out the whimsical entrance to the Hosteria’s otherwise anonymous storefront, which could only be described as the result of a one night stand between an English garden show booth and the front yard of an organic co-op in Portland.


The eclectic front courtyards hints at the shabby chic decor inside.

The eclectic interior, with it’s meandering black and white mural decorations, fresh wildflower centerpieces, mismatched shabby chic chandeliers, vintage tableware, and—curiously—antique typewriter in the bathroom (it took me awhile to figure out why my son kept getting up to visit the loo every ten minutes), further put my doubts to rest. This was not a place which would be turning out factory-made tagliatelle with chemically-enhanced truffle sauce from the kitchen.

The small restaurant oozes personality.

Indeed, we didn’t know what would be coming out of the kitchen until our hostess, Laura, told us the specials of the day; the Hosteria is a strictly no menu sort of place. The selections are a magical alchemy of seasonal ingredients, Laura’s fancy, and customer finickiness (my son didn’t seem particularly excited about the cocoa maltagliati, ink squid tagliatelle, or ricotta and basil ravioli, so Laura took a gander at what she had in the kitchen and came up with a wonderful twist on the Roman specialty cacio e pepe, with a little guanciale thrown in for good measure. He was happy.). I was plied by the ravioli, and they were perfect…light little flavor bombs with a fresh tomato dressing. Aside from her egg pastas, Laura also makes a range of sauces to dress the dry pasta of your choice; the selection the day we visited were guanciale and zucchini, meatball and eggplant, and arrabiata.

An example of Laura's hand-shaped fresh pasta.

The meat dishes were equally diverse, ranging from a local tagliata steak, to traditionally prepared lamb chops, to the decidedly non-traditional ginger chicken or fish cakes. I asked for a cheese selection, and was treated to one of the best cheese courses I’ve had in Italy…from aged pecorino to fresh ricotta (served on a spoon with local honey), accompanied by a number of Laura’s handmade fruit mustards, relishes, and—divinely—wine reduced to an intense drizzle-able glaze.

The portions were as generous as Laura herself, so by the time we got to the dessert menu we could only handle some of her excellent biscotti (which were so good that my son managed to pocket one or two for later) and vin santo.

The Hosteria has an interesting wine list, with some off-beat local Umbrian cantine which reflect the vibe of this small (seating for about 30) restaurant and its menu. As I said, I was treated to lunch, but my gut feeling is that a couple could easily have two courses, dessert, and wine for around €50.

We had these biscotti, but without the hat.

When I asked Laura about the name she gave her Hosteria (which translates into 4 Feet & 8.5 Inches), she told me she had taken it from one of her favorite works of Brazilian author Paolo Coelho, Zahir. “The story is a parable of one man’s search for his wife, during which he is also searching for himself and the meaning of love. Four feet and 8.5 centimeters is the distance between rails on train tracks, and becomes an allegory for static nature of marriage as opposed to the constantly changing and evolving nature of love. Because the more you try to establish rules to measure love, the more love disappears.”

Kudos to Laura, her wonderful Hosteria, and the measureless love with which she feeds her clients’ bodies and souls.

These photos were used with kind permission of Laura Saleggia, who retains all the copyrights.


Italy Roundtable: Sliding Doors, What-ifs, and the Cross of San Damiano

This is the third installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Cracker Jacks, and join in on the conversation.

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.

Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.

These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.

In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:

  1. The cross spoke to Francis.
  2. Francis listened.

A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire

Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.

But it could have gone differently.

Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up.  He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.

This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.

And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:

Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


Rebecca as Guest rather than Hostess: Roman Assisi

I don’t often write about Assisi per se, as it seems that rivers of ink have been spilled in describing the town’s beauty and mystique. So it was a unique pleasure not only to be able to contribute to one of my favorite blogs about Italy (Madeline Clarke Jhawar’s excellent Italy: Beyond the Obvious) but to be able to explore some of the lesser known Roman monuments and sites in my adopted hometown.

If you have a passion for Roman history (or just want an excuse to check in to a fabulous five star spa), take a look here for some tips!